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Making networking work

Making networking work

By Holly Hammersmith

Networking is more than shaking hands and collecting business cards. Every networking opportunity is a chance to build valuable relationships that can contribute to your professional growth – and the growth of your organization.

“Most successful executives realize they didn’t get there completely on their own,” says Ivan Misner, Ph.D., founder and chief visionary officer of Business Network International. “Someone along the way was there to give them a nudge, give them advice and help them along.”

Misner has spent more than three decades developing the world’s largest business networking organization. Today, BNI has 7,800 groups in 73 countries worldwide.

“There were many people along the way that gave me advice and support and coaching that allowed me to create the successful organization we have today,” he says.

How can you build better relationships through networking?

 

Focus on learning opportunities.

People who attain a C-suite role within an organization tend to be individuals who are highly committed to learning, Misner says. Networking provides an outlet for that.

For business leaders, a key component of networking – and one that is critical to career growth – is giving and receiving mentorship. Networking is both a way to mentor employees coming up the ranks and to connect with peers to nurture your own personal growth, he explains.

“Peer-to-peer networking is very important. It’s more about farming than it is hunting – it’s about developing a relationship with your peers,” Misner says.

Peer-to-peer conversations also offer business leaders a unique look into what’s going on in the world outside of their business operations, says Nettie Nitzberg, founder and principal of West 5 Consulting, a firm that helps global companies attract, retain and grow their top talent.

“A lot of times executives and senior leaders are so inward-focused that they are not out there finding out what the best practices are, confirming what they are doing is the right thing to be doing, or learning from their peers,” Nitzberg says. “When they get out and network, sometimes a new world opens to them.”

That new world can help you figure out what approaches are working – or not working – at other organizations, confirm that other executives are facing similar challenges and solve problems, she adds. “Building connections creates opportunities, which sometimes you are not even aware of, to share information and garner information.”

 

Manage your time effectively.

It’s important for business executives to carve out time for networking activities, even when they are very busy. Misner recommends looking at networking as a way to work “on a business” versus “in a business.” Both are equally important for growth.

Most large associations and trade organizations have events scheduled many months – and even years – in advance. Add those to your agenda as soon as dates are confirmed.

“Put [the event] on the calendar and work your schedule around it as best as possible,” Nitzberg suggests. “Let your executive assistant know that this is a commitment. It’s something that can’t be bumped up or forgotten.”

Ensure networking remains a priority by designating a certain percentage of your week or month to networking activities. Then color code those activities on your calendar.

“Figure out where you want to spend your time and plan your calendar accordingly,” Misner says.

Another time-saving measure: See if a list of attendees is available before an event or meeting. This can help you strategize who you want to talk to.

“Connect with the person on LinkedIn [in advance] and make sure you can meet up with them,” Nitzberg says.

Social media can facilitate networking, but should not take the place of in-person meetings. Before traveling to another city for a work meeting or conference, for example, reach out to your LinkedIn connections who are in that city and ask them if they are available to meet in person, Misner suggests.

“Nothing beats meeting someone face-to-face, shaking their hand and having a conversation,” he says. “Now LinkedIn becomes more powerful. You can continue with touch points after you have made that initial meeting. Otherwise, building credibility on social media takes a long time.”

Twitter can also be used as a tool to follow up after a meeting.

“After I meet someone, I might mention them in a tweet along with something I took away from that [meeting],” Nitzberg says.

 

Put your best foot forward.

Even for those who recognize the importance of networking, having reservations is normal.

“It’s a huge challenge for everybody,” Nitzberg says. “Whether you’re an extrovert or an introvert, it’s overwhelming walking into a room where you don’t know anybody. Where do you start? How do you talk to people? How do you walk in without feeling weird or left out?”

A common complaint from executives is the feeling of being constantly hounded – particularly by people who look at networking as job searching or direct sales, says Misner.

“They are constantly being looked at to buy something,” he says. “[Individuals] use it as a face-to-face cold calling opportunity; so [executives] are constantly being hit on by people who are not at their same professional level.”

Other concerns plaguing networkers include being unprepared for a meeting or event and having no clear networking agenda or goal, Nitzberg says. “What’s your pitch? What do you want to talk about? What do you want to say about yourself? What kind of knowledge are you looking to gain?”

A lot of people just don’t know how they talk about themselves, says Nitzberg. Having some prepared responses will help you feel more confident and comfortable in different scenarios.

“Practice your speech in advance,” she says. “Networking isn’t about getting a bunch of business cards. It’s about having meaningful conversations.”

To make the most of those interactions, Nitzberg also recommends doing your networking during the time of day you are most engaged.

“Are you a morning person or an evening person? If you are a morning person, go to the morning coffee events,” she says. “Go when you are more yourself.”

 

Think beyond “events.”

Knowing where to network on the executive level is another challenge.

“When you are talking about executives – and their networking needs – you are talking about HR issues, you’re talking about finance issues and budgeting,” Misner says. “These are not topics that the average small-business owner has high on the list of discussion items with their peers.”

First, it’s important to recognize that networking isn’t limited to attending a specific “networking event,” says Nitzberg. You can network while attending a conference, while talking to a class at a university or through a college alumni group. Other opportunities include attending social events, serving on a board or volunteering on community service projects.

When joining professional groups, also seek out those who will offer peer-to-peer connections, Misner says.

“Find networks that are full of people who have your needs and your issues,” he says. “If you are unsure of what is out there, talk to somebody you consider to be a mentor and ask them.”

When in doubt, look within your own business.

“In large organizations, there are opportunities to network internally,” Nitzberg says. “Especially within a matrix organization, people don’t meet other people from other departments. A senior leader can be a mentor for someone in the organization as well as spearhead opportunities for networking.”

Internal networking can help leaders generate ideas for improvement, uncover mentoring opportunities and facilitate a stronger company culture.

Lastly, to get the most out of networking, think beyond your own needs.

“Rather than going in thinking ‘What’s in it for me?’ go into these environments and think, ‘How can I help you?’ Misner says.